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Free Study Guide: Sula by Toni Morrison: Chapter Summary

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This section introduces Helene, the mother of Nel. Helene was the daughter of a prostitute, living in New Orleans; therefore, she was raised by her grandmother Cecile, who sheltered her from improprieties and raised her with the strictest guidance. Helene married a distant cousin named Wiley Wright and moved out of the South to Ohio. In Medallion, Helene lives a respectable life with her husband and her daughter, Nel. She is an upright, conservative, and socially conscious citizen and a good wife and mother. She has shielded Nel from the evils of the world in much the same way her grandmother Cecile shielded her.

At the start of this section, Helene receives a letter telling her that Cecile, her grandmother, is very ill in New Orleans. With reservation, she decides to travel with Nel to visit the lady who raised her. Helene is concerned about the racism in the South, where buses and trains are still segregated. In Medallion, Nel has never been exposed to such things. To prepare for the trip, Helene sews a new dress for herself in an effort to look as respectable as possible.

On the train to New Orleans, Helene and Nel accidentally board the white car and are severely chastised by the conductor. Helene grovels for forgiveness, much to Nel’s surprise. She has never seen her strong and respectable mother act so shamelessly eager to make up for the fact that she is black. Nel vows never to allow anyone to make her act in such a pathetic manner. On the two-day journey, Helene and Nel quickly discover there are no bathrooms for the "coloreds;" the black passengers are forced to use the fields adjacent to the train tracks. At first this is quite shocking, but eventually Helene feels pretty good at being able to do this without embarrassment.

By the time Helene and Nel arrive in New Orleans, Cecile has already died. Helene does see her mother, Rochele, and introduces Nel to her; the girl is shocked by Rochele’s appearance and behavior. Two things on the trip greatly influence Nel: the pathetic groveling of her mother toward the sneering white conductor and her prostitute grandmother. When she returns to Medallion, Nel realizes the trip has changed her; she feels more like an individual. It is a wonderful discovery, which she relishes by looking at herself in the mirror. She hopes to see more of the world and develop into a wonderful adult.

After her return, Nel meets a young girl named Sula. Helene initially disapproves, for Sula’s mother, Hannah, has a wild reputation in town. Sula, however, appears to be quiet, and Helene allows the friendship between Nel and Sula to grow. Nel enjoys visiting Sula at her house, for she prefers the chaos and wild behavior she finds there.


This section introduces the reader to Sula and Nel, the protagonists of the story. First, however, Nel’s mother, Helene, is introduced. An explanation is given as to why she is such a prim and upright person. Helene lived in New Orleans with her grandmother, Cecile, and was shaped by her into a good, obedient young girl. She could not live with her mother, Rochele, because she was a prostitute. In response to her own upbringing, Helene has shaped her daughter, Nel, sheltering her from all manner of evil, including racism. She has also not allowed Nel to have any independence.

When Helene’s grandmother grows ill in New Orleans, Nel and her mother go to visit her. It is a journey of discovery for the young girl. She experiences racism for the first time when she and her mother are forced to ride in a segregated train car and to use the bathroom in an open field since they are “colored.” She is shocked to see her mother humble herself to a white conductor, and Nel promises that she will never be shamed into the same behavior. Nel also learns about independence when she meets her grandmother, Rochele. When she returns to Medallion, Nel realizes that the trip has changed her, has opened her eyes and made her realize she is an individual. Nel, as a direct response to the stifling influences from everyone around her and the shocking revelation of whom and what she comes from, vows to be both independent and self-created. She wants to be different than her mother and her grandmother and vows to eventually live independently, free from influence.

Sula is finally introduced at the end of this colorfully wrought section. She is known as “different” in The Bottom-- independent and driven by her own desires. Her mother, Hannah, is also different and called a “loose” woman by the community, for she is attracted to men. Sula and Nel are very different in personality and upbringing; in spite of their differences, they become friends even though Helene does not at first approve. Nel likes to visit at Sula’s house, which is chaotic and lively. She prefers the spontaneous atmosphere there to the stifled and tightly ordered home where she lives.

Morrison includes a bit of social commentary in this section. Although there is little racism in Medallion, the South is still filled with it. When Nel and her mother travel to New Orleans by train, the conductor scolds them for sitting in a white car. Instead of being indignant over the stupid cruelty heaped upon her by the conductor, Helene becomes apologetic and groveling. Helene’s behavior shocks her daughter and angers some black soldiers on the train. They feel that Helene’s pathetic actions make her complicit in the rudeness against her. The racist scene impresses Nel enormously, especially since she has never experienced true segregation or seen her mother take a groveling stance. Nel is suddenly ashamed of her mother and her behavior; she vows never to act like her.

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